State, counties, cities must get real on weed

A worker in a marijuana patch near Garberville holds up a high-potency strain of marijuana. Recreational weed was legalized in California on Nov. 8.
A worker in a marijuana patch near Garberville holds up a high-potency strain of marijuana. Recreational weed was legalized in California on Nov. 8. AP

Like it or not, the Green Rush has started. Voters in California and eight other states considered marijuana-related measures Tuesday and passed at least seven, including our Proposition 64, which legalized recreational use of the drug.

Californians who are 21 and older can now possess, transport, buy and use up to an ounce of weed without fear. And stores licensed to sell nonmedical pot can open on or before Jan. 1, 2018.

The only question now: Are Californians actually ready for this?

A lot rides on the answer, for the entire nation. As home to the world’s sixth-largest economy, the state is poised to be a bellwether in the long, national fight to legalize a drug that many argue has untapped benefits, but many others insist poses a threat to public health. Marijuana is, after all, still classified by the federal government as a Schedule I narcotic.

Emboldened by California, advocates are betting more states will legalize pot. Another hope is that, finally, the federal government will cease putting weed on par with meth as an addictive substance with no medical value. Admit it or not, scientists throughout the world have found myriad uses for cannabis, from shrinking brain tumors to easing nausea.

If even some of this happens, it will put a major dent in the War on Drugs – a failed effort that put far too many people behind bars, particularly people of color.

Already six states – home to more than 20 percent of the nation’s population – allow adults to use small amounts of cannabis for recreational purposes. They include Nevada and Massachusetts, where voters approved ballot initiatives Tuesday. Maine is leaning that way, too, but votes were still being counted Wednesday. The states that allow marijuana for medical uses now number 26 – well over half the nation in population.

But there’s a cautionary tale in how medical marijuana became decriminalized. When California became the first state to allow it, the federal government didn’t go along. What followed were raids on facilities providing marijuana to cancer patients, some terminally ill. We don’t want a similar regulatory mess in legalizing recreational pot, with some jurisdictions continuing to arrest those who use it while others go overboard in hopes of capturing tax revenue.

Part of that will be up to the counties and cities, who can reject recreational use or, more likely, craft ordinances to regulate both use and cultivation. Being shortsighted and greedy will only harm residents, particularly in poor neighborhoods where old warehouses can be turned into grow sites.

Meanwhile, the state must find ways to discourage people from driving stoned, and to keep the drug away from teens and children.

Given that Proposition 64 was bankrolled by Silicon Valley investors, at least one of whom envisions becoming the Philip Morris of the marijuana business, we fear profit motives will trump ethical behavior. But we also recognize that there is an enormous black market already active in California, some of it controlled by Mexican drug cartels. In late summer, three brothers from Modesto were forced to work in a cartel-controlled grow until they could escape.

Being able to legally grow, process and buy marijuana will help weed out these sinister and often deadly operations. That’s one of the reasons we endorsed Proposition 64, the most thorough plan for legalization of recreational weed ever presented to voters.

Figuring out how to make this work is no longer a theoretical pursuit; it’s real, and it’s about time.